It’s been a tough go of it for former Arizona star Aari McDonald and her Tucson fans. She is now on her third head coach since being drafted by the Atlanta Dream in April. Meanwhile, many of the Wildcat faithful have struggled to navigate the Byzantine nature of WNBA broadcast deals to watch their beloved point guard.
Finally, those fans can take the 114-mile drive from McKale Center to the Footprint Center to see the Dream kick off the second half of the season against the Phoenix Mercury.
“I posted a tweet yesterday and even before I came, everyone has been texting me, hitting me up on Twitter, all that,” McDonald said. “So I’m just really excited to come back as a professional to one of my favorite states. Hopefully we get the dub. That’d be even better.”
The game against the Mercury kicks off the second half of the season as players return to their WNBA teams after the Olympics. For the Dream, it’s an even bigger change. They will be breaking in a new coach for the second time this season.
The team lost Nicki Collen, the previous head coach, just before the season when she took the head coaching job at Baylor. Former Dream assistant Mike Petersen stepped in as the interim head coach, although he made it clear that he wasn’t interested in taking the position permanently.
On July 4, conflict between some of the players boiled over on the bench, leading to the indefinite suspension of star point guard Chennedy Carter for conduct detrimental to the team. That was followed by Petersen stepping down from his interim position on July 24, noting health reasons. Former assistant Darius Taylor stepped in as the new interim head coach.
McDonald is looking for the silver lining in it all.
“As always, I was just telling myself to stay positive,” McDonald said. “And I just got to thinking, maybe sometimes change is good. And I think that, hey, we’re all embracing it. Might be hard, but we’re embracing it and right now everything is up for us.”
As for her new head coach, McDonald credits him with helping her develop the skills she needs to be an effective point guard in the WNBA and identify the situations where she can be most efficient on offense.
“Coach Darius has been helping me with play calls,” she said. “He has been telling me just to survey the game. And he’s just like, ‘Hey, if you don’t have people back, you can go. Do your thing.’ But if the players are set defensively, that costs us. He’s been helping me a lot with realizing that.”
McDonald will have her work cut out for her against the Mercury, a team that features three players who just helped the USA take their seventh straight gold medal in women’s basketball at the Olympics. She’s ready to see how her game stacks up against such a formidable group.
“I’m really excited to play the Mercury,” McDonald said. “They have a great point guard in Skylar Diggins and she’s a lefty as well. Very quick, very scrappy. And obviously they have the force down there. They have Brittney Griner.”
Once the 6-13 Dream are finished with their visit to Phoenix, they have 12 regular-season games left. Atlanta currently stands in 10th place in the 12-team league, so getting to the playoffs will be difficult. With two-thirds of the league making the postseason, it’s not impossible, though.
Regardless of how things end this season in the WNBA, McDonald has another season approaching quickly. She recently signed with Hungarian team Uni Gyor for her first Euroleague season. Joining a team that finished second in their league’s regular season last year means she has some definite goals.
“I’m expecting to win,” McDonald said.
She also should see more playing time. McDonald has averaged just 13.6 minutes per game this season with Atlanta. More time on the court would help with her achieve her other on-court goal, but the on-court experience isn’t all that she hopes to gain.
“I’m going down there to get better and work on my game, and also just win” she said. “And just get outside my comfort zone, explore a little bit, learn the Hungarian culture.”
Any concerns she might have had were eased by a fellow Wildcat alumna. Forward Dominique McBryde played in the same league last year.
“I have talked with Dominique,” McDonald said. “She texted me last week about her experience, and so she definitely eased my nerves a bit. So, I’m really excited to go.”
First, she has business to take care of in the U.S. McDonald and her Atlanta teammates will have to overcome a formidable foe if they want to get the second half of the season off on a winning note. At least she will have some Wildcat fans in the stands pulling for her as she gets her first experience facing Griner, Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi.
“I know that it’s gonna be a tough game,” McDonald said. “It’s gonna be physical, a fast-paced game, so I’m really excited to play against them. Hope we get that dub.”
.@AariMcDonald is back in Arizona as the Atlanta Dream face the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) August 15, 2021
She said she still talks to @AdiaBarnes almost every day.
"Everybody's been hitting me up...so I'm really excited to come back as a professional and to one of my favorite states." pic.twitter.com/ydldSRAKRK